Claims of sectarian discrimination in higher education surface

The Sunni academic community in Iraq faces discrimination by the Shiite-led government, according to allegations published on a website endorsed by Ghent University in Belgium.

The Iraqi government is accused of restricting students’ enrolment for postgraduate studies, locking Sunnis out of key jobs at universities, requiring academics to retire against their will, and replacing experienced professors with people with party affiliations or fake university qualifications.

The allegations were made via testimony provided by an Iraqi professor using a pseudonym, Eman A Khamas, on 10 May on the Ghent website Beyond Educide.

The site, which has been critical of the foreign military occupation of Iraq, was set up following an international seminar at Ghent on Iraqi academia and is dedicated to restoring the “high standards of education” the country had “before it was destroyed by the imperial powers through economic sanctions, war and occupation”.

The professor, who has spent almost four decades in one of Baghdad’s public universities, said Shiite identity “has become an exclusive passport for anyone to assume any [high] position".

One claim that cannot be substantiated is that the appointment of Iraq’s minister of higher education was made largely on the basis of the minister's Iranian and Shiite origin.

Higher Education Minister Ali al-Adeeb is a senior member of the Shiite Islamic Al-Dawa Party and is also a close ally of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite who has been in power for almost six years.

The professor further alleged that academic, scientific and administrative positions in public universities are assigned and shared according to sectarian affiliations, not expertise or efficiency.

Admissions in universities are also based on sectarian affiliation, especially in postgraduate studies, she said.

The testimony claims that Iraq’s public universities are 'distributed' among the political parties, which control internal decision-making and even student admissions.

It alleges that Baghdad University has been 'allocated' to the Islamic Supreme Council in Iraq, while Al-Mustansiriya has been allocated to the Sadr Group. Al-Nahrain University has allegedly been allocated to the Al-Dawa Party and has suffered greatly as a result.

International scholarships were also based on sectarian backgrounds and not skills, intelligence, grades or performance, she alleged.

The same website reported that on 1 May, Professor Muhammad Taqa, dean of Baghdad College of Economical Sciences since 1996, was arrested by security forces.

As a result, some college students demonstrated in front of the Ministry of Higher Education with banners demanding the release of the dean and separation of universities from politics.

In early April an Associated Press report by Hamza Hendawi, published in the Guardian, said that Sunnis were being locked out of key jobs at universities.

The report accused the minister of implementing sectarian policies with the intention of purging members of the outlawed Ba’ath Party from academic institutions.

It is alleged that he ordered candidates for senior positions in universities and the ministry to submit declarations on their possible links with the Ba’ath Party or security agencies. Those found to have withheld information have been banned from assuming the posts for which they applied, the AP report said.

Local tribal leaders and officials alleged that the minister fired nearly 200 academic and administrative staff from the state university campus at Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown in the Sunni belt north of Baghdad, AP reported.

Prime Minister Al-Maliki has denied allegations that his government is harassing Sunnis or discriminating against them.

In 2009 University World News reported that Al-Maliki had signed off a US$1billion higher education plan that included an initiative to send 10,000 students abroad each year over five years to take technical, bachelor, masters and doctoral degrees in Australia, Canada, the US and the UK.

To ensure students from across Iraq had fair access to the scholarships, the numbers were to be allocated proportionally to the population in each of the 18 provinces.

According to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education in late March, al-Adeeb has defended his ministry’s actions, saying it had removed administrators “who abused their authority”, were connected to the previous regime or were no longer effective.

He said claims that the ministry was pushing a political agenda were “propaganda” and untrue. There has been no response from the ministry to the latest allegations.

In the Chronicle article Zuhair Humadi, executive director of the Iraq Education Initiative, which sends Iraqi students to pursue graduate degrees abroad, dismissed the complaints as sour grapes.

“Unfortunately, changes occur, and people who are at the losing end of it will make all sorts of accusations that they are discriminated against.”

However, in Baghdad Sunni academics are reported to be increasingly fearful. Allegations of sectarian discrimination against academics, endorsed by a long list of NGOs, were presented to the United Nation’s Human Rights Council in February.

The NGOs urged that measures be taken to ensure that no educator or academic is dismissed from, or denied the right to return to, jobs on the basis of gender, race or sectarian affiliation.

One professor at a Baghdad research centre, whose name is withheld for his own safety, told University World News that the Shiite-dominated parties, influenced by Iran, are imposing their policies on universities and staff.

"Selection of positions in the higher education sector, offering scholarships, jobs and academic promotions in universities, are not based on informed consent and efficiency, but the political party you belong to,” the professor said.

He claimed that even a name can put academics at risk if it indicates Sunni affiliation – such as Omar, Bakr, Othman, Sufyan and Omiya.

As a result, Iraq has seen a migration of Sunni professors from the universities of Baghdad to the universities of Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, Salahaddin, Sulaimani and Dohuk, and across the border to Jordan and Syria.

Some have reportedly fled to Western countries like Sweden, Canada, The Netherlands and Belgium. Iraqi universities, meanwhile, have been restricted to six working hours a day due to security arrangements, he said.

Iraqi universities suffered a wave of attacks and assassinations in the years following the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Between March 2003 and October 2008, 31,598 violent attacks against educational institutions were reported, according to the Iraqi Ministry of Education.

Between January 2007 and April 2010, bombings at the worst-hit institution, Al Mustansiriya University in Baghdad, killed or maimed more than 335 students and staff members, according to the UNESCO report Education under Attack 2010, written by University World News Deputy Editor Brendan O’Malley.

It said numerous Iraqis were murdered, apparently because they were Shia or Sunni and their campuses were controlled by the opposing sect.

One international group campaigning for depoliticisation of universities in the country argues that the US-led multinational forces should be held accountable for the “total collapse of the Iraqi higher education sector” during the “total chaos created by the occupation authorities”.

Dirk Adriaensens, a leading member of the self-styled Brussels Tribunal Group, said: “The right to education should be promoted and protected for all Iraqi citizens regardless of sectarian affiliation, gender or age.”

An international seminar on the situation of academics, held in March 2011 at Ghent University, called for depoliticisation of the education system to counter sectarian tendencies.

Universities should be seen as neutral places, "just like hospitals, where people with different worldviews and ideologies meet", the seminar concluded.